When we think of what makes a winery noteworthy, we often consider a sense of continuous quality that somehow transcends the vintage challenges. Such wineries produce good wine in even the tough years – and magnificent wine when nature is more forgiving. The best way to determine whether a winery has done this over the course of time is to sit down at a vertical tasing. I was lucky enough to do so with Elizabeth Vianna, lead winemaker of Chimney Rock Winery, at a media tasting in New York City.
But, first, we were provided with some context. Chimney Rock Winery was founded in 1980 on a former golf course, and the winery was designed with distinctive Cape Dutch architecture. In 2000, the Terlato family became involved with the estate, and they assumed full ownership in 2003. From the beginning, their vision was to create top quality wines from Bordeaux varieties in the premier Stags Leap District.
Elizabeth spoke about the Stag’s Leap Palisades where bedrock traps heat and low hills pull cool air across the vineyard. The climatic factors along with volcanic soil produce fruit “that’s intense but graceful.” She added that as a winemaker she doesn’t want to “futz” with the fruit a lot, but rather let the wine express a sense of time and place.
Our vertical included Chimney Rock Winery SLD Cabernet Sauvignon from 1984, 1985, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2012, and 2019. Elizabeth choose both vintages that were critically acclaimed and others that were not, but which she felt offered something special.
Here are some of the Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon SLD vintages that impressed me most:
1984 – The color was ruby with brick-toned rim. The nose was complex with caramel and pot pourri. On the palate, dried fruits and a hint of white pepper. The acid was still present, remarkably, and there was still plenty of length.
1992 – The nose still offered the promise of raspberry, which was delivered on the palate, where black and red fruit were still present. There were fine tannins and good acidity, truly a wonderful wine over 30 years old.
1998 – I got a lot of tart cranberry on the nose, and the palate was lush with red and black berries. The tannins were silky. This was an elegant wine with true finesse.
2006 – This was a lush, big wine with gorgeous cherry compote on the palate – a crowd-pleasing, Napa wine.
2012 – A generous wine with jammy blackberry fruit. Persistent finish with fine tannins.
2019 – Cassis on the nose, fruit-forward on the palate, lively acidity, and very long length.
During the course of the afternoon, Elizabeth told us that she and her staff are in the vineyards all year long. The winery also considers sustainability a priority, and they use biological controls such as cover crops to ensure vineyard health. Solar power and pollinator gardens add to the sustainability focus.
This exceptional opportunity to taste over 30 years of one winery’s vintages was truly illuminating. I left with the strong impression that Chimney Rock is consistently making high quality wines that offer wonderful fruit when young and beautiful complexity with age.